Q&A with Navy's Submarine Commander in the Pacific
Jeanette Steele, San Diego Union & Tribune, Nov 18
It’s an interesting time to be in the submarine business.
China’s expansion of its submarine fleet poses a credible threat to U.S. warships if tensions over Taiwan or the South China Sea turn hot.
That’s according to a RAND Corp report this year that estimates China’s modern submarine force stands at 41 vessels, up from two in the mid 1990s.
Meanwhile, roughly 60 percent of the United States’ 72 submarines - or about 43 - operate in the Pacific. However, the American Navy is also on a building spree. Sixteen new Virginia-class fast-attack submarines are in the works.
Also, the U.S. submarine force has slowly integrated women since 2010, when the Navy announced it would begin opening the formerly all-male bastion.
The transition has not been perfectly smooth.
Enlisted sailors on the Georgia-based submarine Wyoming secretly recorded shower-room videos of female submarine officers. Ten sailors were punished for involvement earlier this year.
These are some of the issues facing Rear Adm. Fritz Roegge, named commander of the Navy’s Pacific submarine fleet in September.
Roegge visited San Diego’s Submarine Squadron 11 this month and spoke to The San Diego Union-Tribune.
In part because of China’s rise, he said, “I think our Navy looks to the submarine force - being able to stay hidden underwater, taking advantage of our stealth. Our Navy expects our submarine force to lead the way.”
Q: A Navy submarine test fired a Trident II D5 missile on Nov. 7 off the Southern California coast. The unannounced evening test was highly visible and spurred widespread public speculation about meteor showers and UFOs. Can you give the larger context of what that was about?
A: It wasn’t unusual. We shoot ballistic missiles for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s testing of improvements to missile systems, or it’s to validate the effectiveness of missiles we have in inventory.
Q: Why was it so visible, and was the Navy surprised by the public reaction?
A: With a nighttime shot, that fiery plume from the booster is highly visible. We had great atmospheric conditions as well that allowed it to be seen for a long way. If it had been cloudy, you might have seen it for five seconds.
I would expect there to be some attention. We don’t publicize in advance what we intend to do operationally. We’ll notify mariners of areas to stay out of. But beyond that, we’re not looking to inform our competitors of what we’re doing ahead of time.
Q: What does the growth of China’s submarine force mean for American subs in the Pacific?
A: It means there’s a lot of very interesting activity going on out there. Part of what combatant commanders might task us to do is to go and understand what’s going on in the undersea environment.
The better prepared we are to fight and win, the less likely we will ever have to. That goes back to the importance of testing, like with the missile launch. We are satisfying ourselves that our systems work, but we are also clearly signaling our capabilities to those who might otherwise want to try to challenge us.
Q: Was the Trident test a show of force?
A: It was a test. But if there are other messages that people want to (see,) I understand they will draw their own conclusions.
Q: Female officers started serving on submarines in late 2011, but the Navy only this summer named the first enlisted women who will train for submarine work. What’s taken this long?
A: I don’t think it’s because of an obstacle or any particular challenge. It’s because we in the submarine force, we are all engineers and nukes (nuclear technicians) at heart. We are very methodical in how we do things. This was a phased approach.
In many cases, it requires modifications to the ships in order to ensure basic privacy. On the officer side, it required no modifications. But on the enlisted side, it required modification to the hull.
On an Ohio-class submarine, the crew is berthed in nine-person bunk rooms. They took a bunk room adjacent to a (bathroom), and they provided direct access.
Q: What about on the majority of U.S. submarines, which are the smaller, fast-attack variety? The Navy has announced enlisted women won’t serve on the older Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarines, which are the backbone of the current fleet. (Five Los Angeles-class submarines are assigned to San Diego.)
A: What we determined we could execute quickly but cost effectively is, beginning with the next Virginia-class submarines to be built, to build them from the ground up with male and female spaces.
Q: The Navy won’t retrofit the 12 existing Virginia-class fast-attack submarines?
A: We might. But currently the plan is to try to get this right from the ground up.
Q: Was it a cost-savings decision to not retrofit?
A: Not necessarily. We already have more than enough work to do when we get submarines into (shipyards).
Q: What’s your assessment of how integration of women is going?
A: We are now at the point where the first female officers have completed their initial tours at sea and rotated to shore duties. Now they are approaching decisions on what to do with their remaining naval service. Ultimately, the best metric of our mutual success is to what extent those women decide they want to continue to serve as submariners.
Q: Regarding the videotaping of women in showers, what’s your comment? Is there something about the isolated nature of the submarine service at play here?
A: It was simply sailors who did not understand what it means to treat a fellow shipmate with dignity and respect. The submarine force has tried to communicate very clearly our expectations of professional conduct. It’s not professional conduct of men to women. It’s conduct of shipmates to shipmates.